Looking back on my first job as an HR Manager in the 1908s, a significant deliverable of the workload was looking after the company employee benefits budget - in other words managing every thebe and pula that employees cost and was forked out to them (including salaries). In those days we termed salary as a benefit – synonymous with the thinking at the time. Technically it is not incorrect - the employee does benefit from getting paid - but it does ring hollow when answering potential employees who ask about company benefits and you chime back – you get paid monthly! As far as other benefits went, it was slim pickings with the only offerings being a paltry maternity leave assistance, corporate uniform, medical aid and a staff canteen, the benefit status of which was questionable. Employee experience and employee engagements were terms still to be thought up.
I have been known to sit on the fence on the subject of staff benefits because whilst I believe that to make you an attractive employer sometimes you have to throw everything including the kitchen sink at employees, it’s becomes a bottomless pit. In the last decade we have seen many companies move towards a clean pay structure where all employee allowances are amalgamated into one to make up the basic salary. The allowances may include housing, car, medical etc. - all the stuff that used to be shown separately. The thinking is ‘let me give you what you are costing the company and you can divvy it up as you see fit’.
Here’s the thing though – benefits – and wanting them just doesn’t go away. A few years after you have amalgamated the allowances, employees have forgotten their 13th cheque was incorporated into their basic pay and you can hear them bemoan the lack of benefits around here.
A Future of Benefits Study conducted in August 2020 by Hartford shows that employees are becoming highly interested in perks like paid time off (52%), hospital indemnity insurance (48%), employee assistance programs (56%), and mental health support services (51%). The study also predicted that companies will make a shift from offline to online experiences. Zoom-driven team building parties, fitness and yoga classes, and mindfulness sessions - all of this quite evident in corporate Botswana today – the list goes on and on, and if you are thinking where does this end, the answer is never. It is always going to be on the agenda that companies need to think bigger, better, smarter and more productively about what they offer to employees who work for them.
One of the most unique and left-field HR benefits trends which I read about recently came from a company called Chanty in the US (of course). They offer a perk that isn’t directly connected with the company but rather ticks the life experience benefit box. At Chanty, each employee gets a $100 bonus to spend on a party and presents for their families. Imagine! Another one I read about was food delivery straight to employee’s homes, so they don’t have to spend time cooking and grocery shopping. Apparently benefits like these demonstrate to employees that a company cares and supports them through hard times by deed, not word. Why am I left feeling like I have just been patronised by skewed assumptions? I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when HR presented that at the Exco meeting. To be honest I have always felt that companies with an obscene amount of money have HR departments who can spend all their time thinking up sometimes silly schemes because they are not being measured on productivity or how they control the salary bill (unlike most hard-core HR departments). I have a good friend who used to work for Investment bankers in Canary Wharf in London who told me that she was measured by how many learning and development activities she created for professional staff. The shocking revelation was how she didn’t believe that any of them added any value whatsoever but, as that was what her big fat bonus hinged on, she complied – who wouldn’t?
The current benefit dilemma, however, is unsurprisingly ranged around the post-pandemic corporate model. Most people that I speak to raise the question of either re-structuring work for employees going forward or returning to the old normal. Most agree that it won’t but I think it’s a case of it can’t, as the new ways of working will prevail. Anyone who thinks differently I say you are going to have to drag people back in to the offices kicking and screaming if that’s what you decide – that stable door opened and the horse bolted long ago.
The biggest thing facing us at the moment is not if we are offering online yoga classes and remote networking session on a Friday afternoon (mark my words that will never survive!) but how we will offer flexibility in terms of how work is delivered. How this is packaged will become the biggest benefit for employees in the next few years. Whether you want employees to work from home most of their time, go to the office three or more days per week, or have a mixed workflow will require some clever and never done before thinking. And don’t be fooled thinking that this is easy to get right. You have issues of engagement to think about, re-skilling managers and shifting their focus from managing activities to outcomes etc.
There is a lot to gain from it all round. Companies who have offices for the sake of creating a workstation for employees and all the costs associated with that – cleaning, electricity, refreshments, IT and, and, and -, could instead throw a P1000 a month working allowance at employees to either deck out their home office or spend P50 a day sitting at a coffee shop using their facilities or a hybrid of the two. Company gains, productivity improves, engagement and happiness are affected and everyone ultimately benefits. Except, perhaps, the real estate agents, tying to offload all that newly freed-up office space!